To automate or not to automate: ecommerce marketing automation that preserves the human touch
If you work in ecommerce marketing, we’re betting you don’t have time to do most of your job.
Marketing job descriptions are notoriously broad. Depending on the size of your company, you may be expected to perform 3 roles in 1, all the while struggling to master any single part of your job.
Content strategists are expected to spend hours writing. Social media content creators are expected to analyze data. Everyone is expected to make customers happy when they work for “customer-obsessed” organizations.
An all-hands-on-deck approach may be great for company growth, but how great is it for you, a person who’s trying to meet their revenue quota with brilliant integrated marketing campaigns, each one needing to perform better than the last? No wonder 83.3% of marketing and communications professionals reported experiencing burnout at the beginning of the pandemic (higher than any other group surveyed at the time).
This may be why 27.5% of marketers are leveraging automation in their email marketing strategies, and 33.12% of marketers plan to invest “significantly more” in email automation, according to Klaviyo’s marketing mix report.
While automation may not solve burnout, it can make your ambitious marketing strategy easier to execute. But what exactly can marketing automation help with? How can you get the most out of it—and make sure it’s not creating more work for you and your team?
That’s what you’ll walk away from this article knowing—plus what not to automate so your campaigns remain human.
What is ecommerce marketing automation?
Ecommerce marketing automation is software that makes it easier for marketing teams to perform the repetitive tasks involved in deploying campaigns. The goal of automation is to connect with potential customers and enhance existing customer relationships at scale by triggering actions associated with rules marketing teams set up ahead of time.
For example, ecommerce businesses use marketing automation for customer segmentation, email and SMS communication, and personalized product recommendations. You might use marketing automation to send automated emails to customers who abandoned their shopping carts, enticing them to complete their purchase with a special discount, ultimately increasing sales and revenue.
As a marketer, you don’t want to automate everything. Skip ahead to find out what’s best done manually so your business retains that important human touch people always value.
4 advantages of marketing automation for ecommerce
Ecommerce automation software facilitates the connection between your brand and your customer—at scale. Here are 4 outcomes you can expect to see if your marketing automation strategy is serving your brand as it should:
More—and better— customer data
It’s no longer enough to reach people on one marketing channel. Customer behavior on one channel may look wildly different on another, and the data you have on those potential customers needs to keep up so your brand can respond quickly.
“Consumer preferences and lifestyles change frequently,” points out Ted Hirschey, global head of strategic partnerships at Jebbit. “It’s important to always find ways to ensure the information you know about consumers is accurate.”
It’s important to always find ways to ensure the information you know about consumers is accurate.
The best way to do this, Hirschey says, is to make your email automations “more experiential vs. transactional.” “Engage consumers with fun interactions like interactive style guides, monthly style challenges, personality quizzes to inform products or content they should consider, and more,” he suggests.
“The value is that these experiences can help validate whether or not the data you have is still accurate,” Hirschey adds. “If it’s not, replace the outdated information. For any new information collected, brands now have a more enriched consumer profile with valuable data that can be used to inform new automations..”
Higher ROI and cost savings
We won’t lie—the data is inconclusive regarding exactly how much money you’ll save when you adopt ecommerce marketing automation.
But we can say anecdotally that some brands like Titan Fitness saved 75 hours of dev time on email alone when they switched to an automated solution. “You can do the same things in Klaviyo and our prior ESP, but it’s going to take you 5x as long and cost you 5x as much money in the old email solution,” says Brandon Maskell, director of digital strategy and analytics at Titan Fitness.
What we know quantitatively is that ecommerce automation leads to higher ROI. When ranking marketing channels by the ROI they deliver, email automation wins: 76.86% of all businesses place email marketing in the top 3 ROI-generating marketing channels, according to Klaviyo’s marketing mix report.
Faster sales cycles
“The purchasing journey is significantly more fragmented today than it was 10 years ago. People’s lives are simply busier,” explains Tabish Bhimani, principal strategist at Mastrat. “Because consumers are more distracted, it’s an advantage to use various channels to help remind them of the product they need when searching for a solution to a problem.”
The purchasing journey is significantly more fragmented today than it was 10 years ago. People’s lives are simply busier.
It takes, on average, 6 separate touchpoints for someone to purchase a product. The fastest way to transform separate touchpoints into relevant messages is through ecommerce marketing automation—specifically:
- Customer-First Data™: Customer-First Data is data you collect ethically—in other words, with the knowledge, permission, and explicit consent of your prospects and customers. Automation helps collect this data by setting up the mechanisms by which you collect it, through things like sign-up forms and quizzes.
- Audience segmentation: With Customer-First Data as a foundation, automation tools segment audiences based on purchase intent, so teams are in a good position to send them relevant messages.
- Personalized outreach at scale: With a segmented audience, teams are able to send messages that are relevant to the defined characteristics of certain segments, whether by demographic, online behavior, or lifestyle factors.
Better customer experience
The power of ecommerce marketing automation rests in its information-gathering abilities. What you learn about your customers through automation transfers over to their experience with your brand, which helps your brand fulfill the promises it made during the sales process.
Ecommerce automation improves the customer experience through:
- Instant customer service responses: Automated chatbots can triage surface-level customer inquiries and give immediate answers to common questions, which can easily improve customer satisfaction.
- Feedback collection: Automation makes it easier to collect more customer feedback. Great brands fold this feedback into their product development, which in turn creates more satisfied customers.
- Order and service notices: Automated notifications keep customers informed about order status and product updates, which improves transparency.
Keeping your business human: what not to automate
Before we outline the steps to ecommerce automation, it’s helpful to understand what not to automate.
Automation helps businesses save time so they can spend that time connecting more deeply with customers and people. There’s a reason automation is considered a tool, not an ultimate goal for all parts of your marketing strategy.
Here’s where you’ll want to spend more time as a human as you automate other tasks:
High-touch relationship building
Customer interviews, high-quality partnerships, case study creation—keep these as human as possible. They require empathetic conversations to have a lasting impact.
If your organization is facing a crisis in reputation, do away with automated responses. Use human judgment to assess severity, and craft responses bespoke to the audience and distribution channel.
In-depth customer service
Automated chatbots are great for triaging simple customer service questions, but they’re notoriously poor at handling sensitive or complex needs. The jury’s out on how long it will take language models to effectively talk to customers in a meaningful way, but for now we can recommend making sure there are still humans on the other side of the screen to service customers.
5 components of a smart marketing automation strategy for ecommerce
Your ecommerce marketing automation strategy is deeply intertwined with your omnichannel marketing strategy, which focuses on creating a consistent brand and customer experience across multiple online and offline channels. Automation is what makes this strategy scalable.
Your approach to ecommerce marketing automation will overlap significantly with your overall marketing strategy, except here you’ll focus on defining the parts of your omnichannel strategy that are ripe for automation.
Here are 10 automation components that will make sure you get the most out of your automation software:
1. Audience segmentation
“You have so much customer information at your fingertips, and so many merchants are skipping out on an opportunity to do something meaningful with that,” says Jen Brennan, director of digital marketing at Northern. “They take a very broad paintbrush to segmentation, and there are better ways to do it.”
You have so much customer information at your fingertips, and so many merchants are skipping out on an opportunity to do something meaningful with that.
Whereas brands used to blast their entire email list with the same messages, today’s most effective email automation strategies use audience segmentation.
Your audience segmentation strategy will evolve as you discover more about:
- Who your customers are: where they’re located, their lifestyles, their basic needs, their price sensitivities, etc.
- How your customers buy: online behavioral precursors to engagement and purchase intent
The best marketing teams segment their lists based on behavioral triggers, such as:
- Website visitors: getting down to the product description page level
- Campaign engagers: people who open and click on certain emails over others
- Buyers: to increase average spend and repeat purchases
- App activity: to engage with your “stickiest” users
Ecommerce automation makes this sorting process easy by removing the manual work of separating contacts within a list. Because segmentation is based on online behavior, it’s safe to remove yourself from the process.
2. Triggered email campaigns
Triggered email campaigns use customer data and automation to send people emails based on online behavior—such as browsing a web page, clicking a link in an email email, or placing an order . Automation technology is what enables you to build personalized content and rules around which emails go out, and when—without manually adding people to a recipient list or pressing send.
“For a long time email was overlooked, but that’s been changing,” says Kenneth Ott, co-founder, Metacake. “Email is powerful mainly because it’s owned—meaning you can talk directly to your customers.”
With a platform like Klaviyo, Ott says, “you are able to leverage the actions the customer takes to deliver personalized communication at scale. With all the noise, it’s more important than ever to follow up with customers, and as long as you’re delivering value, it won’t have a negative effect on those customers.”
In other words, triggered email campaigns allow you to make money from your email marketing strategy in your sleep.
If you want to see what this looks like in action, Tushy’s email marketing strategy is a great example. Tushy relies on 3 tactics to get the most out of their triggered email marketing:
- Segment-level campaign reporting: Tushy segments their audience by customer journey stage, and reporting helps the team learn which messages resonate, when.
- Integration-triggered automations: Tushy sends automated order updates triggered by Wonderment, for example, and Klaviyo makes it easy to see which updates send most frequently. For example, if Tushy’s “stalled shipment” frequency spiked, the team would check in with Tushy’s 3PL.
- A/B testing: Tushy uses A/B testing to learn about their audience’s preferred send times, CTAs, and button colors.
3. Automated SMS messages
Email isn’t the only owned marketing channel ecommerce brands can automate. An SMS (short message service) marketing campaign is a single automated text message or series of text messages that either promotes products to subscribers or otherwise aims to deepen a brand’s relationship with its audience of prospects and existing customers.
“Consumers are smart—they’ll opt in to the channels that make sense for them,” says Suze Dowling, co-founder and chief business officer at Pattern Brands. “SMS as a channel is very in the moment, so brands can expect a more dedicated consumer. We see SMS campaign click rates that are 6-8x higher than email.”
Consumers are smart—they’ll opt in to the channels that make sense for them.
SMS marketing campaigns are reaching maturity, but some brands are reaping the benefits of early adoption. Linksoul, for example, was an early adopter of SMS marketing, and just weeks after launch, they had 20K subscribers. The brand has chosen to leverage their pool of subscribers as a playground to see what might work for people who are highly engaged with the brand.
“When I’m trying to find ideas, I want to spot check a few of our really engaged customers to see what they’re doing,” says ecommerce manager Brandi Cantrell. “That’s how you build messaging that customers actually want and convert from.”
By January 2023, Linksoul’s SMS results far exceeded Klaviyo benchmarks on KPIs from revenue per recipient (7.2x median) to placed order rate (4.6x median).
It seems counterintuitive, but Linksoul saw these kinds of results by boosting send frequency and integrating texts into existing email flows: “Now we’ve got a text in almost all of our flows, and our overall flow revenue increased 82% last year,” Cantrell says. “The majority of that flow revenue came from SMS.”
Even if you haven’t started with SMS, it’s never too late. As Catalina Leyva, senior email marketing strategist at Zero Gravity Marketing, says, “Don’t lose out on a huge potential revenue channel—it’s never too late to incorporate SMS into your marketing mix.”
4. A/B testing
A/B testing is how you know what works and what doesn’t. Ecommerce marketing automation helps you split your audience segments in two, so you can perform tests and see what people respond to the most.
This is how you finetune your design and messaging over time—and after a while, you should really understand what your audience likes.
Some basic examples of A/B tests for email are:
- Testing subject lines for open rate performance
- Testing calls to action (CTAs) for click-through rate performance
- Testing images and layouts for click-through rate performance
The golden rule of A/B testing is to test only one element at a time. If you’re testing subject lines, don’t test CTAs at the same time—the double variable will skew your results, and you won’t know what’s responsible for an improvement or drop in performance.
5. Reporting and metrics
Some of the most common ecommerce marketing metrics you’ll measure are:
- Click rate: the percentage of recipients who receive the email AND click on a link within the email
- “Active on site”: website activity after a recipient clicks on an email, such as how much time they spend on your online store, which product pages or landing pages they browse, and what they leave in their carts
- Conversion rate: the percentage of recipients who take action after they click on an email
- Revenue per recipient (RPR): the total amount of revenue your email generates divided by total email deliveries
- In Klaviyo, this shows up as Rev/Rec on your Email Performance Review and your Campaign Performance Detail views.
- This allows you to analyze RPR both per campaign and side by side with all your campaigns.
- Deliverability rates: the percentage of emails that makes it to your recipients’ inboxes
- Unsubscribe rate: the percentage of people who receive your email and then unsubscribe from your list
5 email marketing automations to set up right now
Ott urges marketers to “take advantage of automated flows ASAP.”
“Start simple just to get them going—abandoned cart, pre-purchase, and post-purchase,” Ott suggests. “This is the lowest-hanging fruit for converting more site visitors, building relationships with those customers, helping them be successful and enjoy using your products, and, most importantly, building brand fans.”
“Don’t overlook automations,” agrees Mackensie Hessler, email marketing designer at Ecom Department. “Whether it’s a welcome flow to introduce your customers to the brand or an abandon cart flow to recapture lost sales, setting up these automations from the beginning is something every brand should be doing.”
1. Welcome emails
Welcome series emails are the first interaction your brand has with someone via email, most commonly after they sign up for your newsletter. Welcome emails perform at over 4.4x the click rate and 27.5x the conversion rate of non-automated email campaigns, according to Klaviyo benchmarks.
- Brand story: Your goal here is to share your mission and values to build trust.
- Thank you: Your goal here is to show appreciation to create future goodwill.
- Conversion: Your goal here is to encourage action to convert new subscribers to new customers.
- Getting started: Your goal here is to familiarize subscribers with your products to show how your brand adds value.
This example from Magic Spoon hits all 4 categories. They express their brand story with bright colors and a strong educational statement: “Just like our cereal, our emails will never contain any junk.” To snag a conversion right away, they offer free shipping on every first order.
2. Abandoned cart emails
An abandoned cart email re-engages shoppers who add products to their online cart but leave the site without purchasing them. About 70% of online shopping carts are abandoned, according to a study by the Baymard Institute. If you’re not sending abandoned cart emails that educate people and nudge them to buy, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.
And remember: Abandoned cart automations don’t need to hit your abandoners on the head with discounts right away to be effective.
Manly Bands, for example, automates a two-part strategy to their abandoned cart flow. They start with an automated email that has no purchase CTA—instead, it’s a one-question survey that asks: Why didn’t you want to buy?
Customers who respond get a personalized follow-up with a coupon. In January 2023, the placed order rate for this flow was 4.8x the median for Manly Bands’ peer group, according to Klaviyo benchmarks.
If you’d rather be more straightforward, according to Morgan Mulloy, director of retention marketing at Avex Designs, the best abandoned cart emails highlight customer support options. Mulloy says abandoned cart emails are “a great place to list out return policies, shipping estimates, and channels for assistance.”
Only Curls exemplifies a customer support strategy with their cart abandonment email, and it works because it’s more like an email you would get from a personal contact than a brand.
3. Win-back campaigns
The harsh reality is that not all your brilliant integrated marketing campaigns are going to capture revenue from every person who receives them. But there’s a solution for that: the win-back email.
A win-back email is an email campaign that targets people who haven’t bought from your store or opened your emails in a long time to motivate them to interact with your business again.
“A long time” is different for every business—if you have long sales cycles because your products are expensive, for example. But a contact is generally considered “inactive” if they haven’t interacted with your brand in any way in 3-6 months.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should wait a long time to plan your win-back campaign strategy and content. “Start planning your win-back email series earlier than you think you need to,” advises Cory Smith, director of lifecycle marketing at Bamboo. “If you wait too long, it makes recouping your customers that much harder. Don’t be afraid to try to coax people back earlier than seems necessary.”
Win-back emails use trial and error to see what will re-engage people, but if you include one thing, make it social proof. This example from Surreal uses a customer testimonial—and a reminder it wasn’t paid for—to pique interest among the disengaged parts of their list.
With a little scarcity—“Seriously, these are moving fast”—the brand may be able to sell a few boxes to people who otherwise would have been cleaned off their list for the sake of email deliverability.
4. Transactional emails
A transactional email is a type of automated email that’s triggered by an action, typically a purchase. Transactional emails are sent to one person to confirm a transaction, communicate important information, or deliver a specific notification like a shipping notice.
Transactional emails have high open rates because they contain essential information. According to the latest quarterly Klaviyo email benchmarks, post-purchase email flows earn the highest average open rates of any email automation at 60.9%.
Because transactional emails are 1:1 in nature, automating them just makes sense. Could you imagine sending a series of transactional emails manually every time someone made a purchase? No, because that would be a terrible use of your time.
An automated transactional email series includes the following messages:
- Order confirmation: This email confirms the details of a customer’s purchase, including the order number, the products they purchased, billing information, and shipping details.
- Shipping and tracking notification: This email keeps the customer informed about shipping timelines and includes tracking information to help the customer monitor the progress of their package.
- Delivery confirmation: This email confirms successful delivery of the package, which is crucial for reporting lost items.
- Review request: This email message encourages customers to review the product after some time has passed, which then helps other potential customers make informed choices about their purchase.
- Account basics: Common examples of these emails include messages like password reset requests, account update notifications, or renewal reminders. Add them to your automated sequence to address specific user actions or account-related events.
Note: Just because these emails are transactional doesn’t mean they need to be boring, or that they can’t reinforce the customer relationship in some way. This example from Wildfang contains some nice touches customers appreciate, like which items they saved money on with a discount code. The total amount of savings is the last little piece of flair that makes the customer feel special.
5. VIP and loyalty rewards programs
A loyalty program is a customer retention marketing strategy that uses rewards like discounts, early access to new products, or exclusive access to additional products or brand features to encourage new customers and existing customers alike to continue buying from a brand.
Starbucks’ loyalty program is one of the best examples. With nearly 20M members, it represents more than 50% of spend in Starbucks stores.
So how do you automate a customer loyalty program? It starts with integrations with your CDP. “To build a successful customer loyalty program, you need to ensure that your technology stack is integrated, and your loyalty data is being successfully passed from one platform to another,” says Fiona Stevens, head of marketing at LoyaltyLion.
What this means is that your customer data and your loyalty program are talking to each other, and they’re reacting to the online purchasing behavior of your customer.
This doesn’t need to be complicated. “Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to,” says Tabish Bhimani, principal strategist at Mastrat Digital. “Focus on actions and standards customers are familiar with and build on that.”
Bhimani recommends using data about each customer’s points, tier level, and VIP status, and then echoing that back to them “in every campaign and abandoned cart email” using universal blocks. “Really encourage them to use those points. If you have a point multiplier sale going on, just edit the universal block instead of editing every email.”
Bokksu, for example, automates their points program through simplicity. When someone creates an account in their system, the system begins assigning point values to each profile based on the actions they take. With a loyalty program integration, the program almost runs itself—and customer lifetime value (CLV) increases with almost no extra legwork.
The best marketing automation tools for ecommerce
Now it’s time to lead you in the best direction for your ecommerce marketing automation strategy. Here are some of the most popular ecommerce marketing automation platforms to start your search:
Klaviyo is the platform that powers smarter digital relationships. Because Klaviyo is powered by Customer-First Data, your marketing team can use it to gather behavioral lead data and send relevant emails and SMS messages to audience segments based on how they interact with your brand in real time.
“We love Klaviyo’s email automations,” Ott says. “It’s truly incredible how seamlessly Klaviyo integrates with the ecommerce store to provide endless opportunities to build flows triggered by almost any customer behavior or action.”
“We also love Klaviyo’s outstanding customer service,” Ott adds. “The live chat is extremely helpful whenever we need assistance—every other platform or tool we use day to day pales in comparison to how helpful and knowledgeable Klaivyo’s team is.”
Yes, starting with 500 monthly email sends and email support for the first 60 days
- Customer data management and deep segmentation
- Email automation
- SMS message automation
- Reviews collection
- 300+ integrations with the industry’s most popular ecommerce platforms, like Shopify
How to use it best
Klaviyo’s superpower is its email and SMS automations powered by customer data. You’ll get the most out of Klaviyo when you build strong criteria for online behavior and segment your audiences in as many ways as possible with ample A/B testing for email content.
HubSpot is a CRM platform that’s typically known for B2B marketing to sales and customer service. The platform is a hub for customer data, email, landing pages, websites, chatbots, and more.
Yes, starting with 2K HubSpot-branded monthly email sends
- Landing page builder
- 1K+ integrations with other B2B-oriented software
- Ease of use
How to use it best
If your B2B marketing, sales, and customer service departments are struggling to communicate, HubSpot can help their data live under the same roof and work together to improve business operations.
Mailchimp is an ecommerce marketing automation software for businesses with basic contact management and email marketing campaign needs.
Yes, starting with 1K monthly email sends to one audience segment
- Email templates
- Ease of use
How to use it best
Mailchimp is great if you ’re just starting out with email and need templates to work with. If you want more than 5 audience segments, however, the solution is expensive and might not be sophisticated enough to meet your needs.
Ecommerce marketing automation is something you can build on over time
Your automation strategy can unfold over time as you better understand what your business needs. Start with the essentials—gathering data on customer behavior so you can send people messages that are relevant to how they interact with your brand.
When you can observe your customers in action, you’ll know intuitively which steps to take next toward automating other parts of your marketing strategy—and no one on your team will feel overwhelmed along the way.
Ecommerce marketing automation FAQs
Why should ecommerce businesses invest in marketing automation?
Ecommerce businesses should invest in marketing automation because it saves time and resources by automating repetitive marketing tasks. This allows teams to focus on conceptualizing effective and unique brand campaigns, enhancing customer loyalty through personalization, and gaining true insight into purchase behavior through rich data analytics.
How to use marketing automation for ecommerce?
To use marketing automation for ecommerce, start by identifying key customer touchpoints, like abandoned carts, product views, and purchase history. Then, create automated workflows and campaigns that send targeted emails and SMS messages, personalized product recommendations, and follow-up messages to engage customers at each stage of their journey, ultimately driving conversions and maximizing revenue.
What is the best ecommerce marketing automation platform?
The best ecommerce marketing automation platform will vary depending on your business needs, budget, and technical requirements. Popular options include platforms like Klaviyo, HubSpot, and Mailchimp, which offer a range of automation features and integrations with ecommerce systems like Shopify.
Evaluate these platforms based on the quality and range of Customer-First Data they synthesize. This is what will allow you to send the most relevant messages possible to a wide variety of customer segments with different and ever-changing preferences.